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'Forgotten' Parks And Rec Areas In Florida Receive Significant Funding

Reflection of the clouds in swamp water of the Everglades.
Brian Call
National Park Service
Everglades National Park

The U.S. Congress recently passed the Great American Outdoors Act.

If President Trump signs it as expected, the Act will provide funds not seen in decades to public parks and recreation areas. The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the importance of this generally forgotten aspect of public lands.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund will now divert some of its annual budget of $900 million per year to parks and recreation areas across the country. Also, a one-time bonus of $9.5 billion has been added on top of that to help with deferred maintenance on federal properties.

Taylor Stein, a professor in the school of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida, said this is a big deal for a field that hasn’t had many big deals in a long time.

“There's a lot of groups out there fighting for conservation and protection of natural resources … but it's a kind of a forgotten group that says ‘well, we still need our trails, we’ll still need our bathrooms, we’ll still need our visitor centers.’ And this is actually a specific act that says we're going to fund those things,” he said.

The money will help national parks, like the Everglades and Canaveral, and national forests, like Ocala. It would even trickle down to local wildlife refuges.

“When I was a kid, you would see forest rangers and park rangers out there doing all this stuff. Now, you're lucky to see anybody and it's usually volunteers,” said Stein. “And when expensive things happen – a hurricane hits – they just don't have money anymore to work on this stuff.”

He said one example is Flamingo Visitors Center and Campground, which used to be one of the more popular places in the Everglades. A storm destroyed a lodge there years ago that has never been repaired.

“They could use this money and just say ‘we're getting rid of the lodge and work on other things,’ which would be fine. It's kind of an eyesore,” said Stein.

He adds that the coronavirus pandemic may have pushed lawmakers to pass the bill because it sparked the need for more natural open spaces as people use them to escape from home isolation.

“I think coronavirus is a big billboard that says ‘we need our public areas and we need the management of visitors on our public lands,’” said Stein.

Editor's note: While President Trump is expected to sign the Great American Outdoors Act into law, he has not done so yet. An earlier version of this story misstated the progress of the Act.

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.